Back to Back to School

For throwback Thursday I chose an old back-to-school post. Three years ago our worries were about back packs and showers. Now we wonder about social isolation. I am happy to report that Oliver now showers twice a week, Leo rarely manages mold colonies, and I never measure myself against mothers in the coffee shop. Probably because they are all working out while I am sitting on my butt.

Totally ready for school. I think he might be sad about the 1x1 post it notes.
Totally ready for school. I think he might be sad about the 1×1 post it notes.

The slanted evening light comes through the plate glass of the classroom window. It lights up the half amused, half alarmed look of the mom at the third grade open house as I mention that Oliver will be having his quarterly shampoo over the next two days. Quarterly? Yes, four times a year. The fact that we insist on any shampoo at all feels a bit hypocritical. Either bathe enough to be legitimately clean or let it go entirely, but we have this weird line drawn.  Every three months you wash. (Check out the single bottle of washing magic that keeps kids clean for 4 full months.)

As we unload the Staples bag into the arms of his new teacher Oliver enumerates each item, still a bit upset that we couldn’t find 1×1 post it notes. Another mom elbows me in the ribs. You are so organized she hisses, more a condemnation than compliment.

I tell her that the Staples run was our one outing of the week and this placates her. Then I tell about Leo’s backpack that he threw out because of the mold colony. Asking if  we would buy him a new one he seems not surprised at our no. “What if I can find one at the grocery store?” He wonders,  having inherited this trick from me. It is not SHOPPING if it is FOOD shopping. Candles, flowers, reusable baggies, and specialty cleaning products have taken the place of cashmere sweaters and leather boots, and oddly cost just about the same.  But the receipt is from the GROCERY store. A blameless place. In fact, a virtuous place, where we are providing for our families.

How to overshop.
How to overshop.

The next morning in the supermarket Leo finds a snack bag which mysteriously has back pack straps. He wears it around the store singing it a song and I, of course, acquiesce. I hadn’t expected him to discover anything, and he needs a lunch bag as well (moldy like backpack) so we have the obligatory agreement to unpack it daily so it stays clean, and I almost believe him because his love for the pack is so strong.

Now the boys are fighting. It’s a back pack, it’s a lunch box, back pack, lunch box. On. And. On. Standing next to us at the checkout is a small family. The kids are each clutching snacks. Seaweed. The cart is full of organic produce. I look at my lotions and candles and realize that I have remarkably little food.

It has been a very, very long time since I compared myself to other mothers. I used to stand, bouncing my colicky baby and look down at smooth happy faces lolling on picnic blankets. I remember looking at the pattern on the spit rag over the clean mother’s shoulder and notice it coordinated with the diaper bag. As other babies crawled crowing around clean playroom floors I tracked cloth diapers, and compared them to Seventh Generation all natural disposables, brand name, and Costco brand. My baby was still screaming in my arms wearing overpriced horrible for the environment Pampers. I felt like I had lost three times over.

Now I see the smile. Then I saw the snot and the "bad for the world" diapers.
Now I see the smile. Then I saw the snot and the “bad for the world” diapers.

The choices told a story about finances, and ideals, the were so tied in “shoulds” I burnt out on the constant comparisons. Height and weight percentile, hours of sleep, location of sleep (ie, am I the only one who had a four month old sleeping away in a mechanical swing.) (no)

We have left that time, my kids have become kids, people with interests, and style, and opinions, not accessories to measure. So I have stopped measuring. What they do or don’t do doesn’t say anything about me. Except how we relate to each other. So I focus on that.  At least theoretically.

Today I realize the comparisons haven’t quite ended. I see her in the coffee shop this morning. Actually I see him. Tall but probably about nine, dressed in jeans rather than the ubiquitous blue fleece pants of my almost nine year old. His face is open. He looks above my head to the coffee shop art. “Mama” he says. “Look at this painting.” He and I both turn to her, where she sits with her cropped haired daughter. The mom is beautiful in an understated way, and her sweater and jeans are simple and stylish. I feel like she should be from Cambridge mass, in a huge old Victorian house shaded by trees.

Doubling down on the blue fleece for a week does not make this kid question his cleanliness.
Doubling down on the blue fleece for a week does not make this kid question his cleanliness.

She is not over eager with her response to him. She hears him, gives a small nod and continues with her daughter. I am pleased not to hear  high pitched “parent speaking to their child in public” voice. She is level. He got what he needed from her and they stand to leave. The daughter with a teddy bear, dress and actual child sized back pack, the sons almost skipping, the mom folds the cardigan across her chest in a gesture of comfort and finality. She looks at me. We smile. They leave.

I could know her. You probably know her. I imagine that it doesn’t seem real to her.  She has been a mother for 9ish years, but how did it happen? I can imagine her drivers test, first concert, studying at the library in grad school, pushing around a vintage velvet sofa. Although I see she is my age, there is a youthfulness that makes this last decade seem impossible. But there are the kids. Born, growing, walking out the door.

Its weird this motherhood thing. There was a time before them. Now they are here, and we are defined by our relationship to each other. I am not a mother without them. They are not here without me. Yet, I am not me with them. There are tiny glimpses, when we joke, roll our eyes, make lists,that the mother me is the real me. But most of the mothering exists in a place apart, snuggling in bed, chattering on car rides, glancing off each other at parent child mixed parties.

What she seems like, as they walk away, is that it wasnt an effort or a act, her parenting. They were out together for tea, those three.

Its hard to show up like that.  Allowing dirty hair and tiny back packs isn’t the entire story. Choosing to be with them in mind not in body is such hard work. But it will get easier. Particularly now that they are going back to school.

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Anna Palmer

Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble,, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at

12 thoughts on “Back to Back to School”

  1. Back to school is always hard for various reasons. I stay away from other school mothers if I can. I find it easier to be friends with women whose children are not friends with mine.

  2. Yes, once a mother its hard to figure out where “we” are in this whole mix. As you said, without them, we’re not mothers. But there was a time our kids weren’t there. I guess we live many roles in this one lifetime. Sometimes its hard to sort out.

  3. I think this part resonates with me the most: “So I have stopped measuring. What they do or don’t do doesn’t say anything about me. Except how we relate to each other. So I focus on that.”
    Frankly, I was tired of the measuring even before I started!

  4. My objective was to have adult relationships with my children and I was one of THoSE permissive mothers who let them be, only picking battles I wanted to. Revisit the people in your scenarios in 15 – 20 years. Your children become who they are not in spite of their parenting but because of it.

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